In the UK, we have arrived in the era of “contactless payment” but our language has not. To touch or not to touch, that is the question? I’ve asked it many times myself but money has rarely changed hands and here again, I think that is the point. It’s all about a binary nod and a digital wink. Welcome to the future, it’s right here in the present but it doesn’t know what its name is.
Transport for London’s (TFL) Oyster card started a vogue for “swiping” in and out of tube station ticket barriers a few years ago and we merrily swiped our way out of Archway, swiped our way onto double-deckers in Dalston, swiped and swayed our way home after long lunches in Ladbroke Grove, but now someone high up in the communications food chain has decreed that we will call it touching”, as in “remember to touch in and touch out so that you don’t have to pay a penalty fare”. I thought ironic purchases of former page-three girl Samantha Fox’s breakthrough (and only) hit “Touch Me” (“touch me, touch me, I wanna feel your body”) would go through the roof after the wording was changed. I was wrong; it is a wholly inappropriate song with which to introduce London to a new form of payment for their bus rides. I salute those high up in the communications food chain for their jobs are tougher than we imagine.
Neither of these terms are really fit for purpose, though, are they? Because “swiping” is what Americans do with credit cards – the act of sliding your card down one of those readers before signing for your Advils or pack of Camels or skinny soy latte or whatever it is you’re always buying. And touching? I’m no philologist, let alone an etymologist, still less a pedant, but surely the point of touching is contact and in a brave new contactless world, that’s the opposite of the name of the game, isn’t it? Touching indeed!
At lunchtime at most takeaway joints in Monocle’s hood I’ll be asked if I’d like to “touch it?” I’ve got over sniggering like a schoolboy and the joke of waving a £10 note over a wi-fi-enabled payment console got old quickly, too – and anyway, I’m happy touching anything in sight, as long it’s not a handrail on the Victoria Line. So what should we replace it with? Hover? Too 1980s, and we never got hoverboards, did we? Beep? It’s got an old-school charm but the playas down at Dixie Chicken won’t be caught dead “beeping” for their buckets of fried delights. Pass over? That’s going to offend people straight away.
Maybe it’s the contactless part that we need to pension off? Perhaps employing the verbiage of the anti-viral fallout-shelter is putting people off? Contact is important. Touch keeps you sane. Now, I’m off for a heavy-duty deep-tissue massage and I’ll be paying in cash, thanks.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s culture editor.